Georgia governor signs sweeping election reform bill that will expand early voting and make IDs required for absentee ballots

By Grace Panetta

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 202, a major, sweeping voting and election-administration-related bill that reforms many aspects of the state's elections, into law on Thursday evening.

The at-times complicated and controversial 95-page bill changes when, where, and what is needed for Georgians to vote. It also changes the makeup for the board that oversees voting. Its impact may both expand some aspects of voting, complicate others, and even contract other forms of casting a ballot.

The state Senate agreed to slight changes to the Republican-backed bill by a vote of 34-20 in a Thursday session. The Georgia legislative session is set to end March 31, meaning this bill could the only major election-related legislation passed this session. 

The big changes: When you can vote and who oversees the board

SB 202, titled "The Election Integrity Act of 2021," expands in-person early voting dates and hours for most counties, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting, and gives counties more flexibility to adjust the number of polling places and machines per voting location in response to long wait times to vote.

The bill also restructures the makeup and authority of the State Election Board, including demoting the secretary of state from the chair of the board to an ex-office member, with the legislature selecting the Board's chair. 

The law limits the board's ability to enter into consent decrees and settlements, and, in a provision that Democratic lawmakers have raised significant concern over, gives the board the authority to temporarily suspend county-level election directors and election boards, pending formal reviews of their conduct. 

When it comes to voting, the bill would require jurisdictions to hold three weeks of early voting starting the fourth Monday before the election, with voting hours for at least 8 hours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and up to 12 hours of voting, with polls allowed to open as early as 7 a.m. and as late as 7 p.m. during early voting.   

The bill would require early voting on both Saturdays of the early voting period, also giving counties the option to hold voting on Sundays, too.

Previous versions of other proposed legislation in Georgia would have limited counties to only one day of Sunday voting during early voting. After an outcry from civil rights and racial justice groups, who accused the proposal of targeting Black voters and "Souls to the Polls" voter drives, provisions limiting Sunday voting were walked back. 

A controversial provision that remains in the bill, however, bans volunteers from delivering items like food, water, or folding chairs to voters waiting in long lines, which were prevalent in Georgia during the state's 2020 primary and in early voting for the presidential election.

The law also prohibits most uses of mobile voting buses, which were primarily deployed in Fulton County in the Atlanta area in 2020.  

Georgia mail-in ballots election voting
Officials work on ballots at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Headquarters, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Lawrenceville, near Atlanta.
AP Photo/John Bazemore

A controversial addition of identification 

In another major change, the bill requires voters to provide an identifying number from a government-issued ID, such as the number on their drivers' license or state ID card, to apply for an absentee ballot, and include one of those numbers, or the last four digits of their Social Security number, on their ballot envelope for their ballot to be accepted. 

Currently, Georgia conducts signature verification to authenticate both absentee ballot applications and ballots themselves. While signature matching was successful in 2020, some top election officials say that requiring an ID number instead is a far more objective standard than having election officials determine if the voter's signature matches. 

"97% of Georgia voters have a DL# & 99.9% have the last 4 of their Social in the system. Moving to an objective identifier instills confidence & is easier for counties to execute and train. Anyone claiming voter suppression has as much credibility as those claiming voter fraud," Gabriel Sterling, the state's voting systems implementation manager, tweeted on February 25.

Georgia voting
A person with voter protection waits for voters to arrive during Georgia's Senate runoff elections on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Atlanta.
Brynn Anderson/AP

The bill won't eliminate no-excuse absentee voting but add new changes

The bill also shortens the window for voters to request absentee ballots, moving the deadline to request a ballot from four to 11 days before an election.

For years, election experts have warned that states allowing voters to request ballots within a week of the election, as Georgia currently does, does not realistically account for United States Postal Service delivery timelines and thus sets voters up for failure, increasing the risk of them not getting their ballot in time. 

The omnibus bill further allows counties to permanently offer ballot drop boxes, which were adopted as an emergency measure in the COVID-19 pandemic, but limits counties to offer one drop box per 100,000 residents or one drop box per early voting location, whichever figure is smaller. Drop boxes would also only be available to use during the early voting period.

The legislation additionally cuts down the amount of time between general elections and runoff elections from nine to four weeks, and eliminates "jungle" special elections where all candidates run on the same ballot, as 21 candidates did in 2020, including former Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Other provisions of the bill include: allowing people to serve as poll workers outside their county of residence, requiring officials to report election results and information by 10 pm on election night, expanded public notice for polling place changes and pre-election voting equipment testing, and updating regulations for poll watchers and challenges to voters' registrations.

Trump narrowly lost the presidential election in Georgia to President Joe Biden, a loss that was confirmed by a statewide risk-limiting audit that included a hand recount of the nearly 5 million ballots cast in the presidential race and a subsequent machine recount requested by the Trump campaign.

Even after Biden's win in the state was certified and re-certified again, Trump and his allies continued to falsely insist that the election was fundamentally fraudulent and that Trump was the rightful winner. 

Trump's unprecedented efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election in Georgia, including a January 2 call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger where Trump pressured him to "find" enough votes to overturn the election results, are currently under a criminal investigation. 

A grand jury was convened by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in March 2021 to investigate potential crimes including solicitation to commit election fraud, making false statements, conspiracy, racketeering, and violations of his oath of office in events including in the Raffensperger call.